Victoria Goddard’s 2018 The Hands of the Emperor is a secondary universe fantasy set in Goddard’s Nine Worlds.
Cliopher Mdang — Kip to his extended family — is the personal secretary to a semi-divine figure who is known by titles such as the Lord of Rising Stars, the Lord Magus of Zunidh, and the Sun-on-Earth. The title most relevant to this narrative is Last Emperor of Astandalas.
Spanning five of the Nine Worlds, the Empire of Astandalas is a vast, awe-inspiring state, ruled by a succession of emperors, each of whom is a god in human flesh. Or rather, the Empire was. Prior to the books’ beginning, various unpleasant events culminated in the fall of the Empire. Now the emperor (and by right of his humble-sounding office, Cliopher) governs what cohered after the fall.
Aware that his underling works devotedly and hard, the emperor is gracious enough to grant Cliopher periodic holidays, which he uses to visit his family far across the Wide Seas. During one such holiday, Cliopher is inspired to make a proposition to his boss that will change their world.
Whereas other rulers claiming semi-divinity are merely engaging in empty propaganda, the emperor really does manifest properties beyond the mundane. While one will no longer be struck blind by looking directly at the emperor, touching his flesh is an excellent way to provide one’s widow with survivor’s benefits. Nevertheless, underneath the divinity that comes with the office is a mortal man as prone to exhaustion as any person. Therefore, Cliopher takes it upon himself to propose the emperor take his own holiday amongst the Wide Sea Islanders.
The natural order is for the emperor to decree and for his underlings to make it so. For even so lofty a functionary as the emperor’s secretary to propose a course of action to the emperor is unprecedented1, the sort of unwarranted boldness that can earn a servant a starring role as a head on a pike. In this case, however, the emperor finds merit in the proposal. Cliopher survives and the emperor gets his first ever holiday.
Travelling incognito, the emperor finds he quite likes leisure. This is a stark contrast to being emperor, a job he neither expected to hold nor sought, having ascended to the role largely by means of being sufficiently young and unobtrusive that grand events passed over him and left him the last candidate standing. Being emperor is not so different from being a prisoner, with the added burden of knowing that any errors in the commission of his duties will mean misery for the masses. Until now, the emperor has not had time to sit and consider alternatives.
The emperor resolves that he does in fact have control of his own destiny. He can make the unprecedented decision to relinquish power and abdicate. Who he will be then is a mystery He very much desires to solve.
However, retirement is not as simple as saying “I quit.” The emperor is responsible enough to set his retirement date some years in the future. This will provide time to create the government that will follow the emperor’s abdication. Of course, someone will have to design the state that will follow.
Who better for the task than Cliopher? Providentially, Cliopher is not just industrious. He is a visionary who has many detailed ideas about how the former Empire might be improved. And now, he has a deadline to put them into action.
Goddard’s ISFDB entry is alas incomplete. The author’s own page is of somewhat more help in this matter.
If the reader gets the sense in early chapters that there is a lot of backstory to which they have yet to be introduced, it is because Goddard embraces the approach whereby such information as “what happened to the Empire” is provided only gradually.
This novel’s moral is that all that is needed to reform a very problematic state is a semi-divine autocrat and a brilliant, incorruptible bureaucrat of such sterling character even his bitterest enemies admire him. When one puts it that way, one has to wonder why more troubled nations have not followed this straightforward course of action.
Were one inclined to be slightly negative, one might comment on the length of the novel, which clocks in at 969 pages. A person of dour nature might be so disagreeable as to suggest that just perhaps three or four hundred pages could have removed without affecting the plot. As it is, the book is so hefty as to difficult to lift even in ebook format.
The novel, which is essentially focused on a collection of middle-aged men dealing with their feelings, is remarkable for multiple absences. For example, this is a state where from time to time the unduly unconventional are relieved of their heads but we see no summary executions. This is an Empire where emperors who disappoint have had entirely non-homicidal natural deaths, but the emperor never has to fend off a host of servants solicitously guiding him into the mouth of an active volcano2. Middle-aged men having mid-life crises are notorious for dubious romantic choices, but in this book the emperor never sets his cap for an attractive Monophysite dancing girl. Political visionaries often stumble onto the knives of their twenty-three closest friends. None of that for Cliopher!
Instead, this is close to a thousand pages of slice-of-life narrative about a man deciding to retire, and his closest ally putting in all the necessary paperwork needed to ensure this happens without undue disruption … all while having frank conversations about personal and professional matters. Despite being the heirs of an Empire built on a mountain of skulls, everyone currently alive appears to be either relentlessly nice or easily subdued with just the right choice of words.
Having, as is my custom, read this in as close to one go as could be managed, I found the experience a bit too much, akin to being swotted by a Chicxulub-massed impactor composed entirely of meringue. However, The Hands of the Emperor may hit a sweet spot for fans of Bujold and Addison, and indeed for anyone looking for a lengthy work in which nothing horrible happens.
1: The emperor’s predecessor Shallyr Silvertongue, widely agreed to have been mad, bad, and dangerous to know, chose of his own will to walk off a balcony to his death. Every single person who witnessed the event, of whom there were not a few, agreed that the emperor killed himself rather than being prodded over the precipice to his death by functionaries justly concerned about his excesses. If you cannot trust people who, had the emperor been murdered would be subject to the death penalty for their role in his assassination, who can you trust?
2: There is a princess who gets a volcanic exit, but only because she insisted on constructing a caldera-adjacent structure from which she could amuse herself by observing an active volcano. Mission accomplished!